Feb 22, 2008

On Kosovo, Russians, and the Balkan Powderkeg

Serb protesters attacking the U.S. embassy in Belgrade on Thursday; photo courtesy AP

As a historian whose primary field is modern Europe, it should be no surprise that I am closely following the events in the Balkans over the past two weeks. After all, the region of the South Slavs has been the scene of more wars than I can count on two hands in modern history, and the news of Kosovo's declaration of independence did not sit well with nationalist-minded Serbians.

It is also tempting to draw parallels with the First World War, where a certain faction of Serbia nationalists assassinated an unpopular Austrian archduke in an act that ignited over four years of unprecedented bloodshed. Yet I am less concerned with the potential for violence and terrorism among radical Serbs than I am for the further deterioration of the relationship between the United States and Russia.

The Russians and Serbs have a lengthy history of mutual admiration and support that is equal parts political and cultural. The Russians have traditionally viewed the Serbs as part of a larger Slavic ethnicity, and when forced to choose sides, the Russians have stood by their Serbian cousins though countless diplomatic and military conflicts.

I am disappointed that the United States and the European Union did not work more proactively to slow the Kosovar move to independence as a means of easing the transition to statehood. I think that a longer period of Kosovar autonomy - without formal independence - would have defused the predictable Serbian outrage while keeping the Russians on the sidelines. The seemingly unequivocal embrace of Kosovo's independence by the United States also suggests that the State Department is either brazenly reckless or woefully ignorant of the history of the region. Of course, these are the folks whose ham-fisted aria of "freedom and democracy" has been a dismal failure elsewhere, so I suppose that I should not be surprised at the lack of awareness of matters Balkan among members of the Bush administration.

I fully support the right of the Kosovar people to the principle of self-determination, but I also recognize that this process is akin to navigating a minefield. Ethnic Albanians and Serbs have legitimate historical and political claims to the region, while imperial meddling by the Ottomans and poorly-considered provincial carvings by Josip Broz Tito left Kosovo with an unharmonious blend of ethnic and religious strife.

It should also be pointed out that the Russia of 2008 is much healthier than the post-Soviet nation in disarray that could offer only a token protest in the face of a US-led NATO effort during the 1999 Kosovo War. Russia has the world's largest natural gas reserves, the second largest coal reserves, and the eighth largest global oil reserves, and the Russian economy has benefitted from the skyrocketing energy prices. More importantly, the government of Vladimir Putin is a far cry from the bumbling, drunken, kleptocratic chaos that was the Boris Yeltsin administration.

Will the crisis in the Balkans spark a Third World War? Probably not, at least not in the next few years. However, I see the US-Kosovar love fest as a wedge that drives further away the Russians from rapprochement with the West. Moreover, the possibility of a Russian-Iran axis - or even a Russia-China-Iran bloc - becomes a more likely prospect with each bungled American diplomatic move.

And that, kiddies, is a scary scenario.


Nikolić said...

its allways the Serbs fault, right??? thats how the West sees it, Muslims always the victim, Serbs the baddies. but you do not know about the half million Serbs killed in the Holocaust.

historymike said...


1. No, war is not always the fault of the Serbs, and I did not make that claim. Read again: I said that Serbs and Kosovars both have legitimate historical and political claims to the region.

2. Yes, as a matter of fact I DO know about Serb victims of the Holocaust, just as I know about the millions of Jews, Roma, gays, communists, disabled, Russians, Poles, and other groups targeted by the Nazis for extermination. History is what I do, remember?

microdot said...

But how are the Serb Victims of the Holocaust relevant to this?

It is alarming to see this part of the world further fracturing into mini states of isolated groups.

It's this very reason that Spain did not recognize Kosovo, because it would only inspire the Basque Militants.

Here we have the Corsican Liberation Movement that lives on inspite of almost total opposition from the rest of Corsica.

Mad Jack said...

Yes, it's the Serbs fault. Maybe not all the time, but most of the time. In fact, almost all the time whenever there's a problem, you'll find the Serbs mixed up in it and usually at the bottom of it.

microdot said...

I heard a great interview with Tim Judah on BBC World Radio last night.
He is the author of the "The Serbs" and a has a new book out.
He really makes the case for Kosovo's Independance...it is a very complicated birth for a new copuntry as the Northwest section of Kosovo is heavily Serbian and doesn't want to secede.
Yesterday, a Serbian militia tried to invade symbolically...they were armed with sticks, metal pipes and stones. The Kosovar Police and UN Peacekeepers were there to repel the "invasion" which commenced by the Serb militia starting a fire and burning tires.
Fortunately, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction and the thick choking smoke blew back into Serbia and the Militia had to leave.

BBC World Radio is a very interesting source for up to the minute action.